Riding on the tailgate of a two-seater truck as it rattled over bone-shaking potholes and pits of mud, Jacob leaned over and told me a local sorcerer was currently trying to kill him. I wiped a fly off my nose and asked him what he meant. He raised a finger and pointed to a clearing.
In this part of Sandaun Province, Papua New Guinea, the road was a border between two realms. To the south, forested mountains rose in a tangled riot of lianas and trees; to the north, oil palms stood in tidy rows. Abandoned logs lay on the roadside like the rotting columns of a ruined cathedral. Raindrops dotted our dust-caked faces.
As the plantation came into view, Jacob explained how a local politician had partnered with Malaysian logging companies to convert rainforests into cash crops. The pattern was consistent in Papua New Guinea: lease the land, clear-cut the forest, replant with oil palm. At the moment, Jacob’s 400 hectares along the river promised a gateway to untapped irrigation water. But Jacob wouldn’t sell. In the calculus of the company, he was worth more dead than alive.
One glimpse of a chestnut-colored tree stopped us in our tracks. Cinnamon. Taken in the mouth and chewed with ginger, Jacob explained that its bark creates a wass, a magical defense against sangumas, the sorcerers attempting to ensnare his soul. But cinnamon, more necessary than ever, was becoming hard to find. Jacob’s forest was an island in an oil palm sea.
He hopped down and listened. A lone hornbill flapped overhead with silent wings. No one else was watching. Satisfied, Jacob hurried over and peeled the fragrant bark in small strips.
“I am fighting for my land rights, my resource,” he said. “They are attacking us using sorcery within the close-by village. The company is trying to kill us.”
To reach Ossima village is to find the edge of the cloud forest. Mist rises from the canopy. The air – hot and unrelenting at lower elevations – becomes cool and clear. Golden galleries of sunlight filter through the clouds, a thousand white fires glittering on the dew.
In this remote corner of northwest Papua New Guinea, the thatched houses trace contours of cattle pastures, the result of an agricultural program Australians started when the country was still a colonial protectorate. That era ended in 1975. Today the Australians are gone, but the cattle remain.
For centuries, Ossima’s people hunted in the forest and tended subsistence gardens, their economy a barter market where you could swap deer meat for sweet potatoes, woven bags for polished spears, wild pork for marsupial pelts. But the forest is disappearing.
Time passes in timber shipments. Truck traffic is constant: raw logs leave each week for ocean ports and Asia’s markets. Land the villagers once owned in custom they now hold only in principle; for decades speculators came from distant cities, promised development and purchased 99-year leases from local clan elders. People who oppose logging now do so at their risk.
You will hear about a sanguma long before you ever meet one – rumors whispered like an incantation, subtle gestures of unspoken fear. Cloaked in secrecy, they deal in death. A sanguma, it is said, conducts rituals with potent plants and a target’s clothes to bewitch enemies and bring them under a spell. They then lead ensorcelled victims into the forest, where bodies are cut and organs removed.
“They sew you back up and send you back into the world,” Jacob says. “That’s when you die.”
It wasn’t always this way. Long before anthropologists, miners, and missionaries reached New Guinea’s shores, the sanguma served as social equalizer. If one clan grew too powerful, a sorcerer could restore economic balance, bringing misfortune on another group, but only enough to maintain equilibrium. It made sense in a world where survival depended on reciprocity and equal distribution of resources.
Industry changed everything. Logging companies cleared hunting grounds, leaving with timber and bringing back imported food. Cash replaced the barter system. And when landowners began to resist, the crucible of clan allegiance and capitalism produced sangumas willing to accept payment for spells. Their modes of killing changed with the times. Car crashes. Gun violence. Suicide. When a woman in Ossima died in childbirth some months ago, everyone knew the real cause. It wasn’t a hemorrhage. It was a sanguma.
Tomorrow we go in search of the sanguma plants.
In the morning we eat bananas cooked on fires lit from plastic bags. Veils of mist conceal the sunrise, and a lonely birdcall leads everyone’s eyes to catch the vanishing tail-feathers of kumul – the bird of paradise – a scarlet fire in the jungle of jade. We finish quickly; no time to lose. It’s a long trek into the forest, and we’ll need every minute of daylight.
Starting in single file, we take a trail through waist-high grass and over the rained-out road and up a rise toward a wall of trees. A hunter named Abraham takes the lead. Tall and bearded, he spent the morning making homespun cigarettes from big leaves and rolled newspapers. Today’s tobacco smoked in yesterday’s news. He stops walking and hands me a spear.
“In case we meet a pig,” he says.
And so into the rainforest. Botanists estimate that Papua New Guinea holds over 20,000 plant species – 10% of the planet’s total – and entering a sliver of this ecosystem is the equivalent of stepping into a temple of leaves, a labyrinth of life. Images reach you through a chlorophyll lens. A polyrhythm fills your ears: birds chattering, clicking insects, the sound of wind as it moves through trees. Listen closely and you can even hear the plants, a thousand different beings exhaling oxygen and reaching for the sun.
We keep walking. I’ve come here to learn about the sanguma’s ritual plants, hoping to understand the botany behind a sorcerer’s death sentence. And then we spot it. A species of Ipomoea in the morning glory family creeps up from the undergrowth, its petals a purple pentagon split by a five-fingered star. The flower’s hallucinogenic properties are well known here, Jacob says, and sangumas incorporate it into their rituals to activate power.
The forest, too, has power. Time becomes impossible to track. My phone battery died days ago, and a kaleidoscope of green foliage blocks out the sun. Abraham points out plant after plant with medicinal value – this bark for headaches, that herb for sores – and reads the flora with ease.
In the course of a single day, we find two more sorcerous species.
There’s Galbulimima belgraveana, the white magnolia, another hallucinogen endemic to New Guinea. But it’s not always malevolent. Boil its bark in a decoction of tea, Jacob says, and you conceal your spirit from a sanguma and ward off ghosts.
We’re closer to the coast now, passing a gaping wound in the trunk of a tree where some time ago a boar’s tusk bit into its bark. We stop. A small legume has wrapped itself around the scarred tree’s roots.
“This is the poison rope,” Abraham says.
With ovular leaves growing in pale green blades, it’s Derris elliptica. Used for centuries throughout coastal Papua New Guinea, the plant’s roots contain rotenone, a toxic compound that disrupts cellular mitochondria, leading to oxygen deprivation and death.
Like other sanguma plants, Derris root seems to fit the dictum of Paracelsus: “The dose makes the poison.” People identify it as a sanguma toxin. It’s also used for suicides. Yet in many parts of the Pacific, rotenone from Derris root functions as an insecticide and (now banned) fish poison. The sanguma’s weapon is the fisherman’s tool.
The World Health Organization estimates that over 80% of Papua New Guineans depend on forests for subsistence needs, but to understand the rainforest’s real significance, you need only see what happens when it’s gone. As Abraham told me, the forest is at once a grocery shop, hardware store, political boundary, water supply, cemetery, and sacred space. It’s more than a pretty view. It is everything: the vital ecosystem on which an entire culture was based. A firefly is not a firefly; it may be a departed ancestor returned to deliver warnings. An anthill is not an anthill, but a sorcerer’s jar used to capture another’s soul.
We stop above a slope. Below, at the bottom of a slanting path, the trees open and we can see the river flowing swift and dark. In the clearing two tall plants grow, their leaves an iridescent whorl of red and green around the stem. It’s the gravesite of Abraham’s grandparents.
To a stranger, sites like this – one of Ossima’s most spiritually significant places – may appear indistinguishable from an enormous backdrop of biomass. They certainly did to loggers. Unconcerned with sacred cemeteries, the company viewed any plant that wasn’t oil palm as an impediment to progress. Its bulldozers cleared timber and flattened graves. In their wake they left behind a landscape transformed.
“All of our ancestors buried here have protected the land,” Abraham said. “But now it’s destroyed, and they’re gone.”
Oil palm plantations didn’t just precipitate assault sorcery. They also removed the protection cemeteries and defensive plants provide. Paradoxically, ritual plants are being removed by the very process that renders them necessary. As Abraham said, “We can’t protect ourselves with oil palm.”
Still, the assurances of developers echo like a siren’s song. In exchange for land, people in Ossima receive promises: health clinics, schools, new houses, roads. And so the cycle continues.
In the U.S., the most common question I’m asked about Papua New Guinea remains, “Is sorcery real?” I wonder: “Does it matter if it’s real?” Is Ipomoea a catalyst for the sanguma’s spell, or is a worldview reducible to chemistry? More revealing is the power of an idea, the constancy of a conviction, the way a belief germinates and begins to influence conflict within a culture.
And divisions are growing. Back in Ossima, Jacob’s brothers wonder aloud if it wouldn’t be better to sell land like the others. The Indonesian border market is two days away, and the family needs cash to buy cell phones, solar lanterns, bulky bags of Chinese rice.
Sitting alone, Jacob speaks quietly. He will do the best he can with what he has, he says. Maybe development will come. Maybe aid from the government. Until then, he holds on to visions of his land – a bottomless pool shaded by trees, a successful hunt and its promise of hot boar meat, one more glimpse of a kumul bird glowing like a meteor in the gloom.